After seeing Tuesday night’s abortion debate I’d like to weigh on this topic du jour not in reference to posters or morality, but rather as the greatest political red herring of our time. Even the best discussions, and Tuesday’s was as about as good as I’ve heard, add little in terms of new insight and do very little to sway people who have already formed opinions. What interested me more than the usual arguments for or against abortion was rather the makeup of the pro-life contingent— overwhelmingly Republican and, based on an informal survey, Catholic.
Before I go any further I want to say that I myself am Catholic and despite remaining fairly quiet on the issue, I think abortion is morally wrong. I am also far to the left on economic and foreign policy matters. Thirty years ago my stance would not have seemed paradoxical. Catholics were historically one of the most liberal groups in the country and a quick glance at papal encyclicals laying out Church teachings on war (Pacem in Terris) and labor and economics (Rerum Novarum), one might begin to wonder if Marx didn’t write off his biggest potential ally. Then along came Ronald Reagan’s PR machine, turning the abortion issue into the electoral juggernaut that it is, and swung the Catholic vote like Nixon swung the “solid South.” Other factors like a rise from blue-collar ghettos to bourgeoisie suburbs certainly played a part in this, but the abortion issue has had a staggering impact.
At the time, Reaganomics was shutting down factories and U.S.-backed puppet regimes in South America were slaughtering hundreds of thousands of civilians, particularly Catholic priests and nuns whose teachings were seen as radical propaganda. Yet somehow Reagan managed to convince a large voting bloc to ignore everything it had always considered central to its politics—labor, wealth distribution and a holistic understanding of the “right to life” that includes the death penalty, war and international aid—in favor of one issue. And if you think that the votes of Catholics don’t matter, just take a look at the rapidly increasing number of Hispanic voters—including a large Catholic population—in key states like Texas, California, New York and (2000 anyone?) Florida.
Since that time plenty of lip-service has been paid to the abortion debate by the Republicans, but little has been done to actually decrease the staggering number of abortions in this country. Adoption programs have not been established. Healthcare for unwed mothers so that they can afford pregnancy has not improved. Welfare, originally enacted so that single mothers could afford to raise their children and not have to leave them alone while out working, hasn’t been improved. In fact, the Republicans have demonized the statistically insignificant number of “welfare moms” to actually cut welfare benefits. For all the supposed concern Republican legislators have for the unborn, the U.S. still has one of the highest abortion rates in the world, twice that of supposedly abortion-happy France. Abortion for Republicans has become like civil rights for Democrats: you don’t have to do a damn thing about it and people will still vote for you as the lesser of two evils.
Meanwhile the voice of the Pope and the Catholic Church has been largely silenced on issues beyond abortion and gay marriage. This is of course due in large part to the Church’s ad nauseum statements on these issues. But it is also the fault of Catholics who are content to oppose and ignore calls for more equitable wealth distribution and an end to pre-emptive wars, liberals who have written off anyone who opposes abortion and a media penchant to pigeonhole (because it’s easier that way) the political views of Catholics and their Church. Remember two years ago when President Bush and the Pope met to talk about stem cells? Of course you do, except it never happened. Check the July 24, 2001 New York Times article, dredge through 1100 words of rehashed stem cell information and at the very bottom you’ll find that Bush told reporters that “he and the Pope spoke mostly of foreign affairs, and that his host did not raise the issue of embryonic stem cell research.” Rather, “The Pope raised other subjects where he feels the United States needs a more moral approach, including what he described as a ‘tragic fault-line’ between rich and poor nations as globalization spreads.”
So let’s get this straight: the Pope, who does not mince words when it comes to decrying the plight of the world’s poor and horrors of globalization, tells America’s supposedly devout leader that he needs to take a more moral approach to these issues—and all we hear about are stem cells? The same goes for the Vatican’s outcries at unilateral action in Iraq which—outside of Christopher Hitchens’ observation last winter that “An awful realization has been dawning upon the Bush White House. Christianity is a religion of peace”—essentially went unnoticed.
What it all boils down to is the trite but true observation that voters are all too often seduced into voting against their own self-interest and traditional beliefs by smokescreens like abortion, Elian Gonzalez or school prayer. Times are tough for liberal Catholics over at St. Paul’s church, and the political landscape has slowly shifted further right. Republicans have been drooling for Jewish votes, dangling the Israel-Palestine issue as a carrot. I hope that liberals at Hillel heed the warnings from what has happened to American Catholics.
Joe Flood ’04 is an English concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.